January 05, 2023
By Lynn Burkhead
Idaho's Dworshak Reservoir continues to be a record hotspot for smallmouth bass anglers. The 17,000-acre reservoir has produced the last three state records for weight and for catch-and-release length, including Dan Steiger's 9.72-pounder that has stood as the weight record since 2006.
The latest record came just last month, on Dec. 13, as Joey Walton's 23.75-inch monster smallmouth broke a state record for length that had been on the books for less than a year. After an early start on the wintry day, Walton’s trophy made an early start, a long run across the lake, and months of chasing a record all worthwhile.
With several near-miss bronzeback bass to his credit in 2022, Walton used a measuring board to obtain an accurate length measurement after his record catch. Then he grabbed a few photos to document everything properly. And then he released the big smallmouth back into Dworshak to fight another day.
According to Idaho Fish and Game Natural Resource Program Coordinator Martin Koenig, the Walton fish is good enough for a catch-and-release state record, and good enough to beat the previous benchmark that had been established just last spring. That fish was a 23.5-inch smallmouth caught in May 2022 by fishing guide Travis Wendt, who used a guide's day off to catch it.
For what it's worth, the Wendt catch bested a 2020 state record, a Dworshak Reservoir bronzeback bass that measured 22.75 inches after being caught by Dustin Shepard.
Walton's trophy also ties the length of the state's current weight-record bronzeback bass, the 9.72-pound smallmouth caught in October 2006 by Steigers. In addition to the fish’s weight, the Steigers' bass also measured 23.75 inches (the Idaho Department of Fish and Game maintains a catch-and-release record book that is separate from the state's weight record book).
The Kokanee Factor
The real star of all of this fish-catching in recent months is Dworshak Reservoir, which is found on the North Fork Clearwater River in the north central part of the state. In addition to producing the past three catch-and-release smallmouth bass records, the reservoir has also produced Steigers' current weight record caught on Oct. 28, 2006, as well as an 8.3-pound record by Steigers on Oct. 14, 1995, and a 7.35-pound record by Don Schiefelbein on Sept. 4, 1982.
What's more, the reservoir may not be done with producing big smallmouth bass over the next few months. According to Koenig in an agency news release, IDFG biologists have learned that big bass in Dworshak have a cyclical pattern thanks to up-and-down numbers of kokanee salmon in the reservoir.
Koenig notes that in years when kokanee are abundant—and usually smaller as a result –they provide the food resources necessary to grow these ginormous smallmouth bass.
According to IDFG fisheries biologist Eli Felts, who works on Dworshak, there have been plenty of small kokanee in the reservoir over the past two years. In light of that, Koenig referenced a March 28, 2022 story by Felts that indicated that a record bass was possible.
"The bass growth tends to lag a year, so I expect to really start seeing the effect of the recent increase in kokanee abundance this year," Felts said.
"The high abundance of relatively small kokanee is a good thing for the smallmouth population," observed the IDFG biologist. "Smallmouth grow very fast when they have an abundant diet of kokanee. This growth tends to lag a year, so I expect to really start seeing the effects of the recent increase in kokanee abundance this coming year (in 2022).
"Last fall (in 2021) I received multiple reports of smallmouth over 8 pounds being caught, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the current state record be challenged over the next couple of years."
As it turns out, it certainly was. And it may be challenged yet again before another year runs its course on the calendar. And that means that before Christmas 2023 arrives, who knows what might happen on this gem of an Idaho fishery, one of the hottest smallmouth bass fisheries in North America right now. Maybe, just maybe, jolly old St. Nicholas will deliver yet another state record bronzeback bass to some trophy angler.
Koenig certainly agrees, noting that "Still, there's optimism in the air as we look forward to seeing what 2023 might bring to the record books."